Glorious exceptions abound in the world of wine. Sometimes, producers come into the limelight because they choose a different path, either because of the nature of the land their vines grow, the choice of grape varieties or just the way the landscape is reflected in their wines.
Almost all these realities are applicable to Carlos Esteva (Barcelona, 1950), who in 1979 decided to settle on the farmhouse that his grandfather had acquired in 1939 in one of the most rugged areas of the Penedès (Catalonia), almost on the border of the Garraf Natural Park.
Can Ràfols dels Caus lies on some 450 hectares, 90 of which are under vine –olive and almond trees are also grown. The terrain is uneven, marked by a succession of hills that allow working with different sun exposures. This unirrigated, Mediterranean landscape is dotted with plenty of shrubs and aromatic herbs like rosemary, thyme, pennyroyal or marjoram. The proximity of the sea brings the cooling effect of sea breezes (locally called “marinade”) which contribute to extend the grape ripening process. Yet its most distinctive feature lies below: the Garraf Massif is a large chalky mass, a singular piece of land on the DO Penedès, west of Barcelona.
Everyone who visits Can Ràfols dels Caus takes a visual souvenir with them. It may be the remote and untamed surroundings with vineyards enclosed by a forest with Mediterranean scrubland; or perhaps the patiently restored “masía” (the local name for traditional country houses); or, in a more ethereal sense, the refined atmosphere where wine goes hand in hand with art, food and good conversation.
The new and impressive underground cellar built next to the house will surely make many jaws drop. It has been conceived as a tribute to the chalky rock underneath. Vines here are forced to sink their roots in the rocks’ cracks in search of water and nutrients. In some plots like El Rocallís the soil is so shallow that the plants grow directly on the mother rock.
The rock is part of the structure of the new facilities; in fact, it has been used as if it were a building material. Two huge swing stones serve as a gateway –you literally feel like entering the bowels of the mountain. The lower area, where bottles will age in the future, is arguably the most spectacular. With almost 2,000m², the wide space is presided by a natural ground fault set as an impressive vertical wall.
Building the new winery has been a long process. The first designs and ground surveys started in 2000 with Italian architect Paolo Deganello but it took six years for the first excavations to commence.
"This project is the result of a difficult and intense collaboration between a designer and an intelligent, passionate and creative client to the point that, to all purposes, he has coauthored the project,” Deganello has written on his website. Esteva ackowledges that he wanted a "modern, revolutionary, James Bond-styled cellar.” He opted to use gravity in the winemaking process, but he also wanted an open winery where visitors can learn how wine is made.
The latest years have not been easy at Can Ràfols dels Caus. After overcoming cancer, Carlos Esteva suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed; he’s gradually recovering from it.
Born into a wealthy family from Barcelona, Esteva used to visit the farmhouse as a kid for the harvest season and the slaughter of the pigs. An economist, he did his military service as second lieutenant in the island of Menorca where he stayed eight years restoring old houses. Rosa Aguado, current manager of Can Ràfols, recalls that one of those houses had a grapevine. Esteva used to pick the grapes and tread them. “That made him feel like Dionysus; since then, he has never stopped working with spontaneous fermentations", she explains.
After the grandfather’s death, his three grandchildren inherited the property and Carlos decided to settle in Can Ràfols. He sold the most fertile areas of the estate, something which seemed mad at the time, in order to buy his sister Rosa’s part (who manages trendy Hotel Omm and Tragaluz restaurant group in Barcelona) and filmmaker brother Jacinto (1936-1985), who was a founder and president of the Barcelona Film School.
The beginnings were difficult —the manor was derelict and Carlos struggled to succeed with his unconventional winemaking ideas. His model was Bordeaux —he was familiar with the wines since his father used to drink them. He wanted to plant Bordelais grapes in the same way he had seen in the French region, but trellised vineyards were quite a rarity in those days in Spain. The closest thing he found was a material used to make TV aerials, so word spread of a crazy guy planting TV aerials in Garraf.
In terms of grapes, Carlos’ choices have been highly personal, often inspired by the world’s greatest wines. He grows a whooping 28 varieties, with most of his best wines sourced from specific vineyards.
His top red is a Merlot (Caus Lubis, around €45 in Spain) from a northwest facing plot planted in 1984, whereas Gran Caus (€17) blends Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from different parcels. Single varietal reds include Ad Fines Pinot Noir (around €30) and some special bottlings marking the winery’s 30th (an elegant Cabernet Franc) and 20th Anniversary (Cabernet Sauvignon, which is usually more difficult to grow in the area).
Esteva's close friends have had the opportunity to taste a single-varietal Syrah. It was made as a tribute to former winery director and close friend Ramón Marín who tragically died in a car accident. The bottle label shows a photo of them working in the winery; on the back Carlos wrote: “This is the wine that Ramón wanted to make. We have kept it untouched. It’s the result of his experience and many conversations. We taught and loved each other.”
The impressive white range comprises a gorgeous trilogy that deserves a place of its own among Spain’s best whites. El Rocallís (€32) is made from the nondescript Italian Incroccio Manzoni grape grown on a stony, shallow plot; La Calma (€32) is a Chenin Blanc from an extremely chalky vineyard, almost as white as Sherry’s albariza. Xarel.lo Pairal (€20) is the only one made with an indigenous grape. It is sourced from the oldest vineyard in the property, dating back to 1948 with some clay intermixed with limestone. I had the opportunity to taste the 2006 which had developed towards lovely honeyed nuances and showcased great complexity. Even the more affordable Gran Caus 2013 (€13), an unbaked Xarel.lo, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc blend is drinking beautifully now.
While other producers from Penedès are uprooting or ungrafting their foreign grape varieties to highlight the local heritage, Esteva remains loyal to his wines (some Cavas included), most of which are the result of his own hunches. Paradoxically in such an international grape-oriented winery, he was one of the first producers to prove the potential of Xarel.lo for top class whites. He championed it instead of Parellada, which was the most widely grown variety upon his arrival at Can Ràfols.
On reds, Sumoll (€17) is his particular indigenous choice. Although this variety usually shows a rustic, tannic edge, he has managed to make a subtle, low-extraction wine which is fresh and refined. Exceptionally, grapes are sourced from a local grower as part of an agreement to avoid an old Sumoll vineyard from being uprooted.
Esteva’s obsession to preserve the landscape has led him to purchase the neighboring estate of Mas Sunyer just to prevent a quarry being built in it. Boasting a total of 250 hectares with 35 of them under vine, its grapes source the new Terraprima range, both in white and red versions (around €9 in Spain).
All Can Ràfols dels Caus vineyards are unirrigated and organically or biodynamically farmed. Fermentation is undertaken with natural yeasts mostly in stainless steel tanks except for Xarel.lo Pairal and Sumoll, which occurs in chesnut butts. Many wines are simply aged in concrete tanks or bottle without the slightest contact with oak. And those aged in barrels only spend between 6 and 12 months of their life in wood.
A member of the International Wine Academy since 1996, Esteva continues to make his full-bodied, deep-coloured Merlot rosé Gran Caus ( €12 in Spain) in the same old way, regardless of the current trend towards extra pale colours.
Obviously, money is not the driving force behind him. Carlos has invested most of his personal wealth to turn Can Ràfols into one of the leading wine estates in Catalonia. As far as he sees it, the history of the property, where architectural elements of Roman origin have been found, deserves it. The farmhouse itself dates from the 15th century. Its coat of arms features a plow, a hoe and a falqueta, a tool used during the harvest.
Definitely, Can Ràfols dels Caus is much more than just a place where wine is made.